Fluffy, white puffs of snow flitted thick through the air, exploding into droplets of water on my windshield as I pushed north up the interstate to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The night was fast approaching, and as the miles ticked by, the sky above transformed from a smoky white to an impenetrable black. I was on my way to catch a one-of-a-kind concert — Bon Iver was celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in an arena packed with 17,000 very eager fans. All things considered, the atmosphere outside felt totally apropos. A good winter indeed.
The creation story behind For Emma is well-known and highly mythologized. It’s become indie rock’s version of Henry David Thoreau’s return-to-nature novel Walden. Justin Vernon, a 25-year old fledgling singer-songwriter living in Raleigh, North Carolina, splits with his band, breaks up with his girlfriend, loads his recording equipment into the trunk of his career, and retreats in solitude to his parent’s remote hunting cabin in Medford, Wisconsin. Between November 2006 and February 2007, while still recuperating from a liver infection, Vernon hunted for his own food, drank beer, and wrote and recorded a suite of gorgeous new songs that became the first Bon Iver album.
“I had no proper idea of what I should be doing,” Vernon told Steven Hyden several years ago. “It was a great release, actually, to break up with my band and not have that support system anymore. I was alone, I had no rules, I had no band, I had no sound I sounded like, I had no one to answer to. I just felt a little freer.”
Freedom and pain. Those are the twin feelings that course through the haunted, gut-wrenching music that Vernon assembled. To try and define meaning merely from what he’s singing is to miss the point. It’s a record that defies literal interpretation. It’s the emotion packed in his feather-y, self-harmonized, sometimes-autotuned falsetto where the heart of the record lies. After all, as Vernon told The New Yorker, “Emma isn’t a person,” Vernon told the audience. “Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.”
Bon Iver shared the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago himself on Myspace in June 2007. The underground community passed the music around, and it soon gathered notice from critical outlets like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan. A battle among record labels ensued to sign Vernon, with Jagjaguwar emerging victorious. The album got a wider release on February 18, 2008. Pretty soon, it became hard to walk into a Starbucks anywhere in America without hearing the album’s standout single “Skinny Love.” Bon Iver had arrived.
The purpose behind the concert taking place a decade later in Milwaukee was not to theatrically recreate For Emma, song-by-song, in the same style that Vernon’s sometime-collaborator Kanye West had done a few years back with his own icy album 808s & Heartbreak at the Hollywood Bowl. The intent instead, it seemed, was to evoke the feeling in the air around the time which the record was released into the world. “We’re basically playing an iteration of our last ten years for you in one evening,” Vernon explained early on in the show.
At 9:50, the lights came down. Vernon strode out with a collection of musicians, bowed to crowd in darkness, and took a swig of something out of a silver can. Amid that initial burst applause, he picked up his acoustic guitar, strapped on a pair of headphones. and let out a ghostly wail that was echoed beautifully by the singers to his left and right. Going into this show, I wondered how well these intimate, and occasionally sparse songs would translate in a cavernous space like the Bradley Center. They seemed more well-suited to an intimate environment like Mad Planet, the small venue Vernon had played the night before, than an NBA basketball arena. Those first, angelic choral notes of “Lump Sum” waylaid all of my doubts.
The precision that Bon Iver brought to the show was astounding. For every song it seemed, a new configuration of musicians was brought out to perfectly match, and in some cases, surpass the sonic properties of the recorded material. They psychedelic, strobe light affected freakout at the end of “Team” was especially mind-blowing. At most, I counted nine different people onstage at the same time. Three horn players, two drummers, two backup singers, a bassist, and guitarist, and of course, Vernon himself. For “Woods,” the standout offering from Bon Iver’s 2009 EP Blood Bank, Vernon was left alone to warble out the song’s evocative verse over and over again in near-complete darkness. I got goosebumps.
“I don’t want to make too much of the evening, but it does feel like our first birthday party or something,” Vernon said near the end of the set. It might be more accurate to call it a class reunion, right down to the choice of openers, Field Report and Collections of Colonies Of Bees, who shared the bill with Bon Iver on a cold January night, 10 years earlier at a club just down the road. “There was like 100 people there,” Collections guitarist Chris Rosenau noted. Longtime collaborator Michael Noyce was there and took lead singing duties on a cover of Graham Nash’s “Simple Man,” a song they used to play together to bolster their set back around the beginning of the band. Christy Smith, Vernon’s North Carolina ex came out for “Flume.” For the final number of the night, the band was joined by Sarah Siskind and together the ended the show with a gorgeous rendition of her song “Lovin’s For Fools.”
Though a couple of cuts from Bon Iver like “Holocene” made it into the show, nothing from the group’s most recent release, 22, A Million were included in the setlist. The most interesting moment of the evening came right in the middle, when Vernon debuted a completely unheard song that was left on the cutting room floor so many years earlier. “This is a tune that never came out anywhere, and I don’t know what to make of it,” he said. Apparently titled “Hayward, WI,” the song struck an exquisite somber note, while Vernon sang about baseball fields, warm summer days, and a girl named Norma Jean.
“Gotta be careful about nostalgia,” Vernon warned at the top of the show. “There’s a lot of problems.” It’s true. Sometimes we become too eager to memorialize the people and events in our past that we gloss over some of the harsher realities. A lone auteur, working through a chilly winter in a lonely cabin in rural Wisconsin opened up a flood of romantic notions that made it easy to forget the pain and discomfort that begat the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago. Over and over again, through song after song, surrounded by some of his oldest friends, Vernon fueled the romanticism himself, grateful no doubt, to be playing this music in front of 17,000 people who adored him rather than a couple of hundred who might still pronounce it “Bone I-var.”
That being said, I still couldn’t help but let the emotions take hold, to wonder at the pelt-lined set and think back to that cabin, and feel the emptiness and futility driving the man inside. I almost wanted to reach out and say, “It’s going to be okay.” I had an inkling that Vernon felt that way too. “All of these songs come from one point of view, and I’ve enjoyed studying them with you,” he said to us. “All the love ya’ll, thank you so much for the support. Keep looking good, see you in another 10 years maybe?”
“Simple Man (Graham Nash cover)”
“The Wolves (Act I & II)”
“Lovin’s for Fools (Sarah Siskind cover)”